Tennessee Comptroller tells Town of Mason that oversight will continue

According to Comptroller’s office, a recent audit found 17 issues to be resolved

By: - September 1, 2022 7:02 am
Calvin Blades, 75, with glasses, listens during a recent community meeting. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Calvin Blades, 75, with glasses, listens during a recent community meeting in Mason, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Town of Mason — a majority Black community in rural west Tennessee adjacent to the site of a future multi-billion-dollar Ford auto plant — will remain under the financial oversight of the state’s Comptroller, despite an agreed-upon goal that oversight would end August 31.

The dispute involving Mason gained widespread public attention this spring, once the Tennessee Comptroller took the unusual step of urging residents and elected leaders to relinquish the town’s charter, ending its existence as a self-governed community .

Mason’s leaders refused. They acknowledged the town was deeply in debt but questioned the timing of the Comptroller’s request — just ahead of Ford Motor Company’s planned build of a $5.6 billion electric vehicle plant that is expected to financially reinvigorate surrounding communities, including Mason.

Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers, Mason, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers, Mason, Tenn.: “We’ve done everything they asked us to.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

Town leaders filed suit, suggesting racial discrimination also played a role: Mason is led by a majority Black slate of elected officials, who inherited debt from previous, majority white, administrations. It is an allegation that Mumpower has flatly denied.

A settlement ending the litigation spelled out a temporary action plan giving state officials the power to monitor and guide the town’s financials until this week, an arrangement that would end once Mason officials met all terms of the plan.

Mason’s leaders have failed to live up to all of the terms of the plan, a spokesman for the Comptroller said this week.

“The Town of Mason is showing some progress in righting its financial ship, but more work remains,” John Dunn, the spokesman, emailed. No end date for state oversight has been set.

Virginia Rivers, Mason’s vice mayor, said this week she was perplexed and disappointed the town would continue to be under the Comptroller’s oversight.

“We’ve done everything they’ve asked us to do,” she said.

Mason’s leaders must meet four key requirements before its financial independence is restored, according to an Aug. 10 letter sent by the Comptroller’s office to Mason’s Mayor Emmitt Gooden and its Board of Aldermen.

  • Complete a rate study for its water treatment plant: Mason officials must work with state wastewater regulators to complete a rate study for the town’s water treatment plant, which has anticipated future expenses that are not likely to be covered by the current rates charged to customers.
  • Revise and submit a balanced budget: In the 2022-2023 budget Mason officials submitted, it included an anticipated donation of $100,000 from the NAACP as revenue to balance its projected budget for next year. Those donations, the Comptroller’s letter said, cannot be included in the budget until the funds are in hand. Additionally, the town is budgeting significantly more revenues from fines and forfeitures than in prior years, the letter said, requiring additional monthly financial submissions to the Comptroller.
  • Submit CPA-certified monthly statements. An outside accountant hired by Mason could not initially attest to monthly financial statements in June and July. Since then, the CPA was able to attest to the statements, but his approval of August’s statement has been put on hold until town leaders remove the NAACP contribution from their budget.
  • Update next year’s budget to revise 2021 figures. Budgets typically include line item summaries of previous years’ income and expenses. A just-released audit of the town’s finances, with revised 2021 numbers, means the budget Mason submitted must be updated with those corrected 2021 figures.

Since the Aug. 10 letter, Mason officials have worked with the Comptroller to resolve the issue of the NAACP donation. Rivers said NAACP has provided the Comptroller with dates the funds will be deposited with the town and accepted their projected budget.

A recent financial audit of Mason’s expenses found 17 issues to be address, reports that are “indicative of financial distress,” said the Tennessee Comptroller’s office in a letter to Mason officials.

Dunn, the Comptroller’s spokesman, noted the recent audit of Mason’s finances for the 2021 fiscal year contained 17 findings — “the most audit findings contained in any completed audit report of any Tennessee city, town, or county for FY 2021,” he said. The findings ranged from inadequate segregation of duties, to lack of accurate and timely reconciliations in accounting procedures and failure to receive authorization for issuing debt.

The financial reports are “indicative of financial distress,” a separate letter to Mason officials from the Comptroller on Tuesday said.

And an email sent last week by a state attorney representing the Comptroller’s office reiterated that the town has not fully complied with the settlement agreement, noting “the Comptroller continues to reserve his rights to take further action.”

Rivers, the vice mayor, said that no leader in Mason has argued with state officials that the city has been struggling financially. From previous leadership, the town inherited more than half a million dollars in debt.

Rivers, who became vice mayor in 2021, said town leaders have worked to get the community out of the big financial hole they inherited.

In the meantime, Mason’s part-time elected leaders are focusing on the community, too, she said.

The city hosted a back-to-school festival Aug. 13. Officials with Ford Motor Company donated $5,000 for food and back-pack giveaways.  Mason leaders are working on Halloween plans for the town’s children. And, she said, they were working with Ford to try and schedule a job fair soon to begin to take advantage of the expected investments heading to Mason.

This story has been updated to reflect that an August 31 end date to financial oversight was contingent upon on the Town of Mason’s adherence to terms of a financial plan.

 

 

 

 

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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